Beginners might get overlooked by some as a quirky Indie film, but this would be a big mistake. What separates Mike Mills’ new feature from such a dismissive classification is that nearly all the “quirks” are based in reality. Here are the facts: Mike Mills’ father did come out of the closet when he was 75 (not long after his wife passed away); Mike Mills’ father did wear a purple shirt when he came out; Mike Mills did adopt his father’s beloved Jack Russell terrier upon his death; and Mike Mills is a graphic designer (he most recently designed the album art for the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part II). I caught up with this veritable renaissance man at the Hotel Monaco to talk about growing up in Santa Barbara, his semi-autobiographical new film, and how it came to be.
You grew up in Santa Barbara, right?
And your father worked at a museum. Did you feel out of that culture at all? ‘Cause Santa Barbara, from my experience, is very much–
— Sunny and beachy and I, like, sun burn if I’m out in the sun for more than 5 minutes? Yeah, from 13 on I was either trying to be a pro-skater, or I was in a punk band that i thought was gonna be my future. And I was utterly uncomfortable in Santa Barbara, so when i was 18, I moved to New York City. I think my whole family didn’t really totally fit in. My parents were more comfortable than I was, but we very much didn’t fit into the normal story…. Beyond my dad being gay. Just their personalities. They were so much older than my friend’s parents. That my dad was an art historian. It just didn’t synch up.
I wanted to talk about the foreignness, literal and metaphorical, of the film. The love interests of the characters are foreign and it seems like it has to be someone from the outside that brings out the best in the two male leads.
They’re foreign and they’re both kind of fiery. They’re both looser and more electric than the two men, Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Oliver (Ewan Mcgreggor). I didn’t write them to be foreign. Those two actors just fit the energy that I wanted the person to have. It didn’t really matter where they were from. It made a lot of senese that Anna (Melanie Laurent) was from France ’cause I had this sense that she was far from home and that she was running and running and running. I liked that a lot. And I just liked Melanie for the part, that she was so intelligent and fiery and surprising as a person. Then with Andy (Goren Visnjic), I was looking at all sorts of people and Goren came in at the last minute. I lived in New York and LA so I have so many mixed international friends, couples, relationships. Some of my best female friends are American women living in Paris with French husbands. So, it’s really natural to me. In the Los Angeles I live in it felt easy to do that.
The actors have incredible chemistry. And at this point i think it’s as much Oliver’s story as it is your story. Was there ever a breaking point when you were writing when it started to become its own thing?
Sometimes when you turn anything into a scene, it’s quite an abstraction and quite a distillation… Life is so multi-layered and so confusing and so ambiguous. As soon as you reduce it down to a scene you’re already making it a fiction. It’s no longer reality; it’s no longer me. So, Oliver shares a lot of biographical and autiobrigrapchial facts with me, but when I see it, I see Ewan. Its Ewan’s thing. And Oliver has pieces of me, but it’s definitely not all of me. Even my dad. I was really trying to make a portrait of my dad. I’m trying to really capture him. But that’s my version and in a film of a hundred minutes you can’t show all the aspects of a person. I could show you three, four other versions of my dad. And if another actor played it, it would be a whole ‘nother being, a whole ‘nother person.
With that said, you’ve mentioned that when you were remembering when your father came out, you sort of saw it in a shot-reverse-shot. So, of course when you reduce something to a scene, it starts to become fiction. But in that same sense, you are almost saying that you experience memory as a fiction.
I think memories are so much more about fiction than they are about a newspaper. Like I said, I can see myself in a memory. Like, a shot of me. And I’m, like, wait a second, that’s totally fucked up. That’s totally wrong. There’s no way that happened. I can imagine my dad saying, “Micheal, I’m gay,” and I can imagine him saying it 5 different ways. That’s what I’m trying to do in the movie: To show how slippery it is. So that was actually kind of shocking to me, ’cause I always thought memories were more solid. Especially for me, because both my parents are dead, so you think your memories of them something you can hold on to, but they’re slippery. And not real. And not objects. They’re dreams.
The movie shifts between several time periods— childhood, when his father comes out, and after his fathers death. How did you write that? It seems hard to put on the page. It’s also so fluid in the movie. How did that come about?
A lot of movies I love do that. Like 8 ½. Or Woodie Allen’s Stardust Memories, which is his version of 81/2 . Or this amazing Hungarian film called Love Film by this guy Szabó. And before that he did a film called Father. And they’re both doing this multi-time thing. So, I love that. And once I said I was going to write it like that it became much easier for me. It was much easier than doing a normal chronological storyline. And all the transitions are written in the script. I think it made for difficult reading for lots of people. It wasn’t an easy script for me to give people. And all the drawings? I had to describe the drawings. I wrote the drawings before I drew them. Picture of pet, picture of superman, picture of Harvy Milk. People read it and they’re like *snore*. They didn’t think it was going to be interesting or popular or kinetic.
It also seems to be a little stream of consciousness, like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. How your perception is never still.
I love the beginning of The Waves when they’re kids and they’re growing. And how her writing matches their development level. That’d be cool if I was anything like Virginia Woolf. It’s true that in these movies that I talked about, they throw you forward. You don’t know where you are often when it cuts. I love that technique. It’s not sort of typical dramatic development. I think that is how consciousness is– it doesn’t come in an orderly fashion. That’s also just how it was for me. I started writing it 6 months after my dad died, and it’s really not easy to stay in the present. All these conversations and memories and unfinished emotional tangles are still broiling around inside of you.
You said in the Q&A after the film, that “our most moments are affected social and political situations and forces.” I think it’s very obvious how that was true of the 50’s, but it seems like it’s more difficult to quantify that now.
That’s always the case.
Do you think that’s as true today?
Especially if it feels like it’s less so, then you should be really worried. ‘Cause we’re totally objects of history, and I really believe that. It’s the great trick of Capitalism and the bourgeoisie and mainstream commercial cultures to make us think that this is normal and natural and we’re just here and essential, natural beings. But our lives– our sex lives, our emotional lives, the way we talk, the way we dress– all this is a fabricated historical process. And I deeply believe that and I feel like the more we can look at that, the more we have a chance of—I don’t think freedom is really possible— getting at arms distance from all of that for just long enough to enjoy a little bit of freedom.
The mother in the movie seems to know that her husband is gay. Was that true of your mother?
My real mother knew. That part is very much a portrait of what happened. That’s the endless mystery and paradox of my parents. My mom was a very strong woman. That’s part of what my father tried to explain to me and I was never satisfied with his explanation. And I couldn’t ask her. But my dad said it was really different if you were born in 1925 and you’re a teenager through the depression. My mom got kicked off the swim team when she was thirteen for being half Jewish, and she really did internalize some American anti-Semitism and felt some shame about her Jewishness – or at least deep complications. So, my dad had said to me, “Your mother would disagree with me, but I think that she took off her Jewish badge and I took off my gay badge and we joined the American story.” And when he said that to me, I said, “I’m writing a movie about this.”
BEGINNERS opens in DC today. FULL REVIEW FORTHCOMING